Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematican Katherine Johnson

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematican Katherine Johnson Book Poster Image
Must-read true story of trailblazing NASA mathematician.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Simply by putting her story in context of the times she lived in, Johnson (she was 101 at book's publication) gives readers an overview of pivotal events in 20th century American history but never overwhelms them with too many details. She puts a special focus on how many of these events (Great Depression, World War II, Brown vs. Board of Education, Freedom Riders, Voting Rights Acts, assassinations of JFK and MLK Jr.) affected the African American community. At several points, Johnson takes time to explain to readers why some white Americans were so violently opposed to idea of integrated schools.


Positive Messages

Johnson's father told her to always remember, "You are no better than anyone else, and nobody else is better than you."

Positive Role Models & Representations

While Johnson herself is strongest role model in the story, she greatly admired her mother and the African American women of her mother's generation. She writes movingly of the strength, real heroism of women who worked at the only jobs available to women of color: long hours cooking and cleaning for white families, taking in washing and ironing (in days before washing machines), or working as maids, babysitters, seamstresses at a hotel in her hometown.


While Johnson never describes anything in graphic terms, she doesn't spare young readers from recounting of violence or threats of violence constantly directed toward African Americans during much of her lifetime. How people "might be hung, shot, dragged from the back of a vehicle, or burned alive for things like refusing to empty their pockets, addressing a White police officer without using the title 'mister,' or knocking on the door of a White woman's house." How a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till was beaten, shot, thrown into a river after being accused of making "advances" to a white woman, and how she feared for the safety of her daughters if they became involved in civil rights protests and sit-ins in the 1960s.


Johnson uses "Colored" and "Negro" to refer to African Americans at specific times in American history. Johnson cautions readers at the very beginning of the book that it's "important not to use those words today to describe people or you will certainly offend them."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson recounts the extraordinary life of one of the three African American women whose story was told in the movie Hidden Figures. Born in 1918 and raised and educated in a segregated West Virginia, Johnson was a math prodigy at a time when women, much less women of color, rarely aspired to a career in math or science. A married mother of three when she was hired by what would become NASA, Johnson faced down both racism and sexism at her job and would go on to compute the trajectory for Alan Shepard's first space flight and work on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Johnson doesn't shy away from educating readers about the violence directed toward African Americans in her lifetime, writing (but never graphically) of people being hung, shot, and terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan. Johnson uses "Colored" and "Negro" to refer to African Americans at specific times in American history. Johnson cautions readers at the very beginning of the book that it's "important not to use those words today to describe people or you will certainly offend them." Although it's written for young readers, teens and parents are sure to be equally captivated by this warm and inspiring memoir. 

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What's the story?

Katherine Johnson spent her life quite literally REACHING FOR THE MOON. She was born in 1918 in a segregated West Virginia, but her parents were determined that Johnson and her brothers and sister would get the education they needed to dream big dreams. For a math prodigy like Johnson, that meant everything. She knew her multiplication tables at 4, started high school at 10, and graduated at 13. She majored in French and math at college and after graduating at 18, became a teacher. Her dream of becoming a mathematician seemed unattainable, as a career in math or science at that time was almost unheard of for a woman, much less an African American woman. Johnson married a fellow teacher and had three daughters. She and her husband taught during the school year and often spent their summers working as a chauffeur and maid. At a wedding in 1952, Johnson heard about NACA, a secret government project looking for African American women who were mathematicians. At NACA, Johnson ran up against racism and sexism (no surprise to her), but it wasn't long before white engineers were asking to work with the African American woman with amazing math skills. When NACA became NASA, Johnson computed the trajectory for the flight of Alan Shephard, America's first man in space. John Glenn didn't trust the computer calculations for his flight and demanded they get Johnson to calculate the numbers by hand. He wasn't going into space unless her numbers matched the computer. At the end of her career at NASA, Johnson actually did reach for the moon, working on the Apollo 11 mission. In the epilogue, she writes about her life after NASA (the agency's Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility is named in her honor) and gives readers her take on the authenticity of the storyline in the movie Hidden Figures: "about 75% accurate."

Is it any good?

This utterly captivating memoir makes readers feel as if they're curled up in a comfortable chair listening to a favorite older relative reminisce about her life. Reaching for the Moon covers a lot of historical territory -- everything from the Dred Scott decision in 1857 to the Apollo moon landing -- but Johnson makes it easy for readers to relax and keep reading even when confronted with history that may be new to them. For girls who dream of becoming mathematicians or scientists, Johnson offers a look inside what it was like to work at NASA, computing launch windows for spacecraft and calculating the trajectory of the Lunar Lander on Apollo 11.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the prejudice and racism encountered by African Americans in Reaching for the Moon. What did you learn about living in a time and place where the color of your skin meant you couldn't live in certain neighborhoods, go to certain schools, or even sit where you wanted in the movies?

  • Have you read an autobiography or seen a movie or TV show about a person's life that inspired you? What was it you most admired about that person?

  • Do you think girls are still discouraged from being interested in math and science? If girls in your school are great at math and science, what do other students think about them?

  • Are you interested in becoming a scientist, programmer, mathematician, or engineer? What apps or TV shows do you know about that can sharpen your science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills?

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